Kirtan Defined: Adoration Expressed Through Song

The Virtues of Singing Praises

Singing kirtan in absolute adoration.
Singing kirtan in absolute adoration. Photo © [S Khalsa]


The word kirtan means adoration, or praising, of the divine. In Sikhism, kirtan refers especially to singing of praise as expressed in the hymns and compositions of Sikh scripture. Adoration expressed in song is considered by Sikhs to be the highest form of devotion. Singing kirtan is a virtue unsurpassed, the way and means to overcome the effect of ego and escape mortality.

The Sikhism code of conduct advises that at the gurdwara worship hall, or in the presence of sangat, kirtan may be performed publicly only by Sikhs?

Kinds of kirtan styles permissible for worship include:

  • Traditional raag - The classical musical score in which hymns are composed.
  • Folk tunes - Call and repeat style of singing verses without extras or improvisation.
  • Akhand kirtan - Unbroken adoration singing in continual praise.
  • Amrit kirtan - Singing hymns of immortal nectar.
  • Asa Di Var kirtan - A selection of hymns sung in the early morning hours of Amritvela up until noon.
  • Gurbani kirtan - Singing hymns of Sikh scripture.
  • Nagar kirtan - Singing in a procession parading through the streets.
  • Rain sabaee kirtan - An all night worship service of devotional singing.
  • Shabad kirtan - Singing sacred hymns selected from:

For centuries kirtan was traditionally played in classic raag, and performed using string instruments including the rabab, dilruba, tanpoora and sitar.

Modern day kirtan is played on a variety of instruments. Most common is the harmonium introduced by the British during colonial rule in India, accompanied by tabla, dhol, held rhythm instruments like kartal. Western style keyboard, synthesizers, guitar and violin are gaining popularity.

Pronunciation and Spelling

Pronunciation: Emphasis is on the first syllable so that kirtan has an inflection similar to curtain.The i in ki (or kee) is pronounced to sound like key.

Alternate Spellings: Keertan. See the Gurmukhi spelling of Kirtan illustrated.

Examples From Scripture:

The authors of Guru Granth Sahib write extensively of kirtan extolling the virtues of praise and adoration expressed through song:

  • "Har keertan gaavhu din ratee saphal aehaa hai kaaree jeeo ||
    The Lord's praise sung day and night is the most fruitful avocation." SGGS||108
  • "Akhandd keertan tin bhojan chooraa ||
    Unbroken adoration is their food and nourishment." SGGS||236
  • "Dharam saal apaar dai-aar thaakur sadaa keertan gaavehae ||
    In Thy incomparable house of worship, the saints ceaselessly sing in praise of thy infinite mercy, O Lord Master." SGGS||248
  • "Meech huttai jam te chhuttai har keertan parvaes ||
    Mortality is overcome and one escapes the messenger of death while absorbed in praising the divine." SGGS||297
  • "Sookh sehaj aanad ghannaa har keertan gaao ||
    Peace, poise, and absolute bliss are obtained, when the Lord's praises are sung." SGGS||400